Luckily, pet owners who are aware of their animals' environmental impact can make small changes in the way they care for their pets to be more eco-friendly.
Pet owners know there's no bond like the one between you and your dog or cat. They're there for you whenever you need them, whether it's to cuddle, go on a walk or make you laugh. But, just like humans leave an impact on the environment, so do our pets.
Dogs and cats both eat meat-heavy diets, meaning they contribute to the consumption of animal products, the meat farming industry and all the pollutions, toxins and other emissions that it creates. Since our pets need the nutrients in animal products in order to have a healthy diet, finding a way to minimize their impact on the environment proves challenging.
Luckily, pet owners who are aware of their animals' environmental impact can make small changes in the way they care for their pets to be more eco-friendly. The first step is learning about how severe our pets' carbon "pawprints" really are.
Since our cats and dogs produce waste and consume animal products, they clearly have some sort of impact on the environment — but how significant is it?
To answer this question, a UCLA geography professor, Gregory Okin, conducted research on the environmental impact of America's pets. He found that dogs and cats in US households create about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide and methane annually, which is the equivalent of the climate impact that 13.6 million cars create in a year.
Okin also learned that America's pets consume about 19% of the number of calories as American people do in a year, which is the equivalent of the number of calories the entire population of France will consume in a year.
That's right — our pets' caloric intake adds up to that of an entire country, and a rather populated country at that. In fact, if we took all our pets and made them their own country, they'd rank fifth in meat consumption, following only Brazil, Russia, China and the U.S.
On top of that, since dogs and cats consume more meat than the average human, our pets consume around 25 percent of the total calories derived from animal products in the country.
And, of course, what goes in must come back out — American pets are responsible for leaving behind about 5.1 million tons of feces each year, about the same as 90 million humans.
Having a pet leaves more of an effect on the planet than people may realize when they first look into those adorable puppy eyes. While the solution, of course, isn't to get rid of our pets, eco-conscious pet owners do have a few options to minimize their impact.
Although around eight percent of Americans self-identify as being vegetarians or vegans, many people do not consider passing the same eco-conscious diet on to their dogs and cats.
We know animals need more meat and animal products in their diet in order to support proper bodily functions, but establishing a plant-based diet for your pets is not quite as off-the-wall as it may seem.
Most of today's pet food consists of bone meal and other animal leftovers that humans would not consume. Since we've been feeding these products to our pets, they've become accustomed to it.
So, it's not as simple as just switching your dog or cat to a completely vegan diet one day. While dogs' anatomy can allow them to survive solely on vegetables, cats are a bit different — they are carnivores that need a diet that includes certain nutrients found in meat.
Although it may be possible to formulate these nutrients and add them to a plant-based diet, research hasn't gotten quite that far yet.
Ideally, pet food companies will begin to address the impact their products are having on the environment. They'll need to conduct research in order to develop alternative products for pet owners trying to switch their animals to either a partial or fully plant-based diet.
Their focus should be on finding a way to offer vegan pet food that still includes the right amounts of Vitamin D and amino acids for dogs and cats to follow a healthy diet.
One temporary solution for cat owners looking to be a little more eco-friendly is cat food made with slaughter-free meat. While they aren't all vegan options, the California-based company Wild Earth has created several formulas made with plants and fungi, as well as slaughter-free or lab-grown mouse meat.
Until the pet food industry catches up with Americans' demands for more sustainable options, pet owners can follow these tips to be more eco-friendly:
- Adjust your pets' diet with guidance from a veterinarian: If you have found a more sustainable pet food option that you'd like to try, great! Be sure to do so under the supervision of your veterinarian. You never know how your dog or cat will react to a change in diet, so it's always best to be proactive.
- Use biodegradable poop bags: If you're using old plastic grocery bags for pet poop cleanup, consider switching to biodegradable poop bags. These are much better for the environment and also smaller, so you aren't wasting a whole grocery bag — and while you're at it, switch to reusable grocery bags, too!
- Be smart about pet aftercare: Pet aftercare refers to the physical handling of a pet's remains after they pass away. Rather than burying your old friend in the backyard, consider having them cremated with their cremains final resting place being in a decorative urn. You'll still have a symbol to remember them by, but without the negative impact burial has on the environment.
Our pets are like our children, and we always want to do what's best for them. But, we also need to take care of our planet in order to create a world that can sustain both people and pets for many years to come.
The next time you go to the vet, talk to them about how you can introduce introducing your dog or cat to a more sustainable diet.
Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.